The first step to eliminate bias and discrimination in the workplace is to first understand what it is. Age discrimination can come in many forms, so it’s important for employers to recognise what they are.
We like to think we’re fostering a good workplace culture, but there might be things we and our employees are unknowingly doing that are contributing toward older people feeling insecure and discriminated against while at work.
People today are living longer than ever before. The average retirement age has risen in most countries, with employees working well into their 60s. The nation’s workforce is reflecting these changes as seniors (generally classed as those aged 50+) are representing one of the highest percentages of people in the current workforce.
Despite this ageing workforce and laws prohibiting any type of discrimination towards older workers, ageism in the workplace is still very apparent.
Even if your company has an anti-discriminatory policy and work hard to prevent age bias, it can be easy to overlook some things that may count as ageism or age-related discrimination. Let’s begin by understanding what age discrimination is.
What is age discrimination?
Age discrimination, also known as ageism or age bias, is stereotyping and/or discrimination against an individual or group of individuals on the basis of their age.
Age discrimination can include ways older people are represented in the media; portraying a less than favourable image. It can also include being treated unfairly or being the victim of bullying or emotional and physical abuse.
Ageism at work can also apply to younger workers. However, there appears to be a higher prevalence of discrimination among older adults in workplaces today, with a considerable amount of studies finding that seniors’ experiences of ageism in the workplace have almost doubled in the last five years.
While the global average minimal retirement age is 62 years old, the full retirement age is set to increase from 65 to 67 years by 2023. Despite this, and even with the Age Discrimination Act prohibiting discrimination in employment because of age, older adults are still experiencing ageism and bias in the workplace.
Age discrimination in the workplace
It’s hard to eliminate bias and discrimination against older people if you aren’t quite clear on what constitutes ageism in the workplace.
Many workplaces know that discrimination in any form is wrong, yet, when it comes to age discrimination the lines can be a bit blurry.
For example, many people might not see the harm in greeting someone with, “how are you, old fella?!”. Yet, one should never assume when it comes to making comments – subtle or otherwise – about a person’s age. Similarly, as an employer, you might think nothing wrong with grouping workers together based on their age group.
It might even come from a good place (“they’ll feel more comfortable around others their own age”). Yet what is this communicating to your older employees? You might see it as a positive thing, but perhaps your older workers view it otherwise.
The negative effects of ageism
In the workplace, ageism can cause a lot of harm to a person’s mental health and wellbeing. They may begin to lose interest and become disengaged in their work. They may also take more sick days or present more health problems.
It’s important to become aware of examples of age discrimination and what it may include. Being aware of the signs of age discrimination can help protect both you and your workers, ensuring a happy and healthy workplace that is diverse and inclusive for all.
Examples of age discrimination in the workplace
Age discrimination can be defined in three ways: stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Some examples of age discrimination in the workplace include:
- Not hiring or promoting someone because of their age or by assuming that they are due to retire soon
- Name-calling or stereotypical remarks about age
- Making assumptions about a person’s ability due to their age
- Advertising job vacancies with statements such as “join a young & dynamic team”
- Forcing someone to retire because of their age
- Opting to ask a younger worker for help with a manual task or IT-related task with the assumption that the older worker wouldn’t know what to do
- Discrimination can be direct or indirect. For example, direct age discrimination happens when a person is treated less favourable because of their age. Indirect discrimination can be less obvious.
This happens when employers put conditions, requirements or practices in place which appear to treat everyone the same but are actually a disadvantage to some people because of their age. For example, if an employer requires a worker to undergo a physical fitness test even though it’s not necessary for the job in question.
What doesn’t count as ageism in the workplace
As important it is to eliminate bias and discrimination by being aware of its examples, it’s also important to note what doesn’t count as unlawful age discrimination. Under the Age Discrimination Act, it is not unlawful for an employer to advertise, hire or pay for a person as a junior up to the age of 21. Other exceptions include:
- Things done in compliance with federal and state laws, including taxation and social security
- Certain health in the workplace and employment programs
- Youth wages or direct compliance with industrial agreements and awards
In addition, positive discrimination means it’s not against the law if a workplace provides genuine benefit to a person given their age. For example, discounts and concessions provided to older workers.
Ageism at work – the shocking statistics
The Australian Seniors Series: Ageing in the Workforce 2021 report has uncovered some worrying statistics about the current experiences of those aged over 50 at work:
- One in five workers (20.7%) over 50 have experienced age discrimination at work
- 50% of seniors have felt assumptions have been made about them at work because of their age
- One in four believe they have been turned down for a job solely based on their age
- Nine in ten believe that ageism is prevalent in the workplace
Similarly, in the US, even with a quarter of the workforce comprising of those aged over 55, most older adults feel that age-based discrimination is common in the workplace.
As the workforce ages, these statistics threaten to become even more common. For this reason, it’s ever more important for you, as an employer, to help eliminate bias and discrimination in your workplace and promote a culture of inclusivity to buck this unfavourable trend.
Tips to eliminate bias and discrimination
If you don’t want your company to be among the above statistics, then follow these tips to preventing and eliminating age discrimination in your organisation:
Encourage a diverse workplace
Aim to foster a multigenerational workplace that recognises the value of the individual and not their age, sex, race, religion, disability, or personal background.
Some ways you can promote an age-inclusive workplace include:
- Creating an honest and transparent culture by having discussions with your workers and offering diversity training
- Organising social events for all ages
- Promoting a flexible work policy
- Encourage age-diverse projects and collaborations
- Creating cross-generational mentoring programs
- Acknowledging age bias in the workplace and dealing with it as soon as it happens
There are so many benefits of cultural diversity in the workplace. When employees respect each other, productivity and morale increase, resulting in a far more happier and successful workplace.
Have an anti-age discrimination policy
Every workplace should have an anti-age discrimination policy in place. It also pays to ensure that your policy isn’t too broad or vague.
A good workplace policy should be clear and concise, feature a strong statement of your company’s attitude toward age bias, provide clear examples of age discrimination in the workplace and provide resources on where to seek help if workplace discrimination occurs. You should also clearly state the penalties that may apply if someone breaks the attitudes laid out in your policy.
Have an anti-bullying policy
Workplace bullies and bullying can be detrimental to employees and companies. For the health and safety of you and your employees, your workplace should deal with workplace bullying and conflict swiftly, and also establish a zero-tolerance approach toward workplace bullying.
Examine your recruitment process
Those in HR have a tendency to hire based on bias, often without realising it. While it makes sense not to hire someone if they are clearly not a good cultural fit based on your company’s core values, if an individual is being passed up solely because of their age then that’s a problem.
If your hiring manager deemed someone ‘culturally unfit’, then check with them what their definition of this is. If you find any type of ageism involved in their decision-making, then make them aware of how their decision could be steeped in bias.
Improve your recruitment process
To further avoid ageism in the hiring process, make sure you examine and rectify your current practices. For example, does your website or job advertisements use young language or images strictly of younger people?
Do your job applications include age-related information such as birthdates? Is your hiring team age-diverse? Have you trained HR managers in avoiding making age-based assumptions?
Offer learning & development programs
Many senior workers feel discouraged at work if there isn’t enough training or support available. Support your older workers and avoid creating an age gap by providing resources for seniors at work, along with investing in retraining, re-skilling and up-skilling to help older workers to thrive in their roles.
Support gender equality
Ageism and sexism often go hand in hand in the workplace. A gender pay gap still exists in today’s world, with many believing that equal pay will not become the norm for decades.
In order to eliminate bias and discrimination as well as overcome the gender payment gap, provide salary transparency for your employees and look at ways to proactively overcome gender inequality.
Don’t make assumptions
Never assume that an employee can’t keep up with industry trends or that they are ready to retire just because of their age.
Many older employees are looking to stay longer in their jobs, even after the traditional retirement age. They are also often eager to take on new challenges and learn new skills.
Before making an assumption, talk to them. Get to know their long-term plans, their needs, and what they hope to achieve within their role and company.
Also, be sure to steer clear of stereotypes and be aware of what words you may be using. Even statements like “a guy of your age should have no problems!” can be problematic.
Give rewards and promotions based on performance
Opportunities for promotion, rewards, and benefits should be available for all employees regardless of age. Instead of basing any type of preferential treatment on academic history, age or tenure, base it on performance.
If an employee demonstrates exceptional work ethic and performance yet is being overlooked due to their age then it’s time to review your strategy. Remember, it’s against the law to refuse benefits, training, or opportunities of advancement based solely on someone’s age.
Create an age-inclusive workspace
The physical layout of your workplace can help promote an environment of inclusivity. One way you can go about creating an age-positive workplace is to provide things like ergonomic chairs and desks and to consider vision and hearing-impaired assistive tools and technology.
Your floor plan should allow for accessibility and ease of movement including wheelchair access ramps and walkways. You should also have a collaborative space such as a break room or recreation room that caters for all ages and encourages all ages to come together.
Preventing ageism and eliminate bias and discrimination in your workplace isn’t an easy task. While diversity brings new ideas, creativity and a broad range of talent to your team, it can also highlight differences.
A well-performing multigenerational company makes it clear from the front that they are an inclusive workplace that offers mindful support and resources to prevent discrimination.
By re-evaluating your anti-discrimination policy and having open conversations with your team, you can strengthen your company’s stance on ageism and foster a workplace that is welcoming and supportive of all ages and abilities.
About the Author
Jacqueline Coombe is an experienced mentor and leader in the digital world. As Head of Content Marketing, she manages a team of 8 driven and innovative marketers and leads by example in her management style. Jacqueline has acted as guest lecturer at establishments such as General Assembly Sydney, and is a frequent attendee of leadership and management seminars to better improve her skills.